March 1983—Volume 37, Number 3


Self and World: An explanation of Aesthetic Realism; by Eli Siegel; Definition Press. N.Y., 1981; $9.95 paper; $17.95 cloth.

Since 1955 the Terrain Gallery, founded by Chaim and Dorothy Koppelman—both of them former League students and close associates of Eli Siegel, the poet, philosopher, teacher and esthetician—has headed the announcements of its exhibitions with the motto: "In reality opposites are one; art shows this." Although its exhibitions have been consistently of high class, I am able to recall few sympathetic reviews in either the art magazines or the New York newspapers. Actually silence has been the usual response; silence and a turning away (even though the gallery has always enjoyed the support of great numbers of New York artists happy to be included in its exhibi­tions even if they did not always understand the meaning of the theme of the exhibitions) as though if silence could only be preserved long enough, the unpleasant (to the critics) reality of the Terrain Gallery would quietly fade away. Actually the reverse has happened. The Terrain Gallery (which moved from its original site in Greenwich Village to its present quarters at 141 Greene St. some years ago) has prospered. The adherents of Eli Siegel's philosophy of Aesthetic Realism have increased in numbers likewise. In the present book-a collection of Eli Siegel's writings between 1942 and 1946, continuously revised up until the time of his death in 1978-the thoughts may seem at first disarmingly straight­forward. But the more you try to understand-for the language is always lucid and even poetic—the more difficult the thinking becomes, and the more you feel you are skimming the surface of a profound wisdom. He is not easy. As the poet William Carlos Williams said in 1951: "We are not up to Siegel even yet."

Eli Siegel, as I understand him, believed that man ought to recognize and acknowledge himself as an integral part of the world, and not as a being wishing to dominate or destroy the world. The only way to be at peace with yourself is to like what's not yourself, and the only way to like what's not yourself is to see the world the way the artist sees his subject—as a unity of esthetic opposites. According to Siegel all the arts and sciences are really attempts at liking and understanding the world.

Siegel takes sharp issue with Freud and his theories about guilt being a tension between the ego and the id, resulting in a condemnation by the super-ego which in some individuals, produces self-loathing and cruel and destructive behavior. He also differs, in other respects, with the ideas of R.D. Laing and Erich Fromm. He says that in every instance of a guilt feeling there is evidence pointing to the fact that the cause of it is a feeling of separation of the self from the wholeness of reality. Among many bold pronouncements none by Siegel are stronger than the assertion that contempt of the world produces insanity. Perhaps Siegel's bringing together under the same general heading, aesthetics, philosophy, and psychology is upsetting to many. A critic is unaccustomed to making moral psychological deductions from either nature or from the painting painted from nature. It smacks to him too much of the teachings of John Ruskin—with which the present day critic will most probably have only a second-hand and distorted impression. When Ruskin wrote in his essay on Pre-Raphaelitism in 1851: "In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed. They must be for it; they must not do too much of it; and they must have a sense of success in it" we are hearing something that sounds as though it could have come from a follower of Eli Siegel—of which, incidentally there are a great number in New York, many among them former League students. (Definition Press shares premises with the Terrain Gallery at 141 Greene St. This book and others mav be ordered directly from there.) [Lawrence Campbell]

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